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Origin Story

How Alberta ended up funding the Catholic
Separate School Board

Canada's Colonial Past


Catholic schools are part of the dual system of public education in Alberta. They are fully funded by taxpayers to the tune of $1.6-1.8 million a year, and complete with separately elected school trustees and operate under the same provincial legislation (the Education Act). They have been operating in Alberta since the 1840's, before Alberta became a province of Canada.

In Alberta, about one in four kids attends Catholic school — that's more than 160,000 students.


Only three provinces still have education systems like this: Ontario, Saskatchewan and Alberta.


It has to do with our colonial history, politics and the constitution.

Faithful Companions of Jesus

Upon the request of Bishop Grandin, a group of Catholic Sisters from the Faithful Companions of Jesus arrived in Calgary from Saskatchewan to establish the first Catholic school located within the precincts of their new convent, Sacred Heart.


Since then, opposition to separate catholic schools has often taken on the same imperialist pallor as the residential schools.

Brett Fawcett,

Special to Grandin MediaA digital news portal telling stories of Catholic life in today's world, and particularly in central and northern Alberta.

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Calgary became Alberta’s first Roman Catholic separate school district on December 18, 1885. The idea of providing Catholic education in Alberta, then referred to as the North-West Territories, began 15 years prior. Bishop Grandin, the North-West Territories’ first bishop, devoted himself to bring Christianity to the west. 


Located in the former residence and chapel of missionary Father Lacombe, the Sisters opened St. Mary’s School. Mother Mary Greene led the school as the first teacher, principal and superintendent. She was influential in enshrining Catholic educational rights in the constitution.


The Faithful Companions of Jesus: An International Congregation of Catholic Sisters founded by Marie Madeleine d’Houët in France in 1820

On October 1st, 1888, after a few weeks with their Sisters in Calgary, five FCJs left Calgary. The ride over the prairie would take ten days and their destination, Edmonton. 

In Edmonton, FCJ Sisters were the first teachers in Catholic schools. They founded the city’s first Catholic school, St. Joachim, in 1888 and helped establish the separate school district. They were teachers or administrators at schools throughout the city including, St. Mary’s, Sacred Heart, Mount Carmel, Grandin, St. Joseph’s, St. Catherine’s, and Archbishop MacDonald high school.

What sparked the launch of Catholic Schools?

When the bishops, responding to complaints about Protestant domination of public schools and the risk of proselytizing of their kids, ordered every catholic parish to build a school.

The Catholic people of the community were to establish a Catholic school because they desire the education of their children to be nurtured in Catholic Christian values. Catholic schools are instruments of the Church, reaching out to young people of their local communities with Christ’s teachings about life, death, and resurrection.

This was a way to keep the two dominant religious groups at the time happy. It meant Catholics and Protestants could each educate their kids according to their own beliefs, even if they found themselves to be a religious minority in a particular area.

Guaranteed at Confederation But Not Written in Stone 

The Constitution Act, 1867 was negotiated by the fathers of confederation at the Charlottetown Conference of 1864, the Quebec Conference of 1866, and the London Conference of 1867. It is universally understood that Confederation could not have been achieved without protection for denominational education in the new Canada,

Catholic schools pre-date Confederation. Because of issues between Protestants and Catholics in Ireland, Irish-Catholic immigrants were determined to make their own school system to preserve their culture. Due to the number of Catholic immigrants pressuring politicians, Catholic schools were listed as protected in the legislation when the British North America Act of 1867 was passed (section 93).


Section 93

It entitles separate, religious schools to any "class of persons" who already had them when Canada became a country. 

Although Alberta wasn't a province at Confederation, the Alberta Act of 1905, which created the province, included a similar provision. It guarantees education rights that existed "at the date of the passing of this Act."


However it only applies to Catholics and Protestants

That mainly means Catholic schools, but it also means Protestants can have their own separate schools in Catholic-dominated areas.

It does not apply to other faith groups, however, as they didn't come to Alberta in large numbers until much later.

Having separate school boards has been a contentious issue for almost one hundred and fifty years. Although guaranteed as a Constitutional Entitlement, it does not tie the hands of the Alberta Government because amending it or eliminating it is not legally difficult.   

Important note on the Faithful Companions of Jesus

Sister from the same Catholic organization "Faithful Companions of Jesus" that established the Catholic Separate School System in Alberta were also involved in establishing and running Residential Schools in the prairies

St. Michael's Indian Residential School: (1894 -1996)

In 1894 Roman Catholic missionaries, from the Faithful Companions of Jesus established the Duck Lake residential school north of Saskatoon in what is now Saskatchewan. In the school’s early years, tuberculosis was epidemic. In 1910 an Indian agent estimated that fifty per cent of the children sent to the school had died. I felt it was important to include this specific information since upon learning the history of Catholic Separate Schools from the Faithful Companions of Jesus website this particular residential school was referenced in their history outline. 

Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre

National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation 

Faithful Companions of Jesus

Stories from Survivors 

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